Brexit 5 years on: Still making our minds up?

Wednesday marked the fifth anniversary of the British public voting to leave the European Union. To say it hasn’t been smooth sailing would be an understatement. Five years on, where do we stand on the decision to leave the EU? DRD Partner Pete Bowyer explores what the result means and how Brexit has changed the political map.

Five years ago this week the British people voted 52%-48% to leave the EU. Whilst the coronavirus pandemic has relegated the focus on Brexit over the last eighteen months, no other issue has been so disruptive to the British body politic since the Second World War. Over the last five years, typically just a single Parliamentary cycle, we have had three different governments, lost two Prime Ministers and seen the UK’s electoral map turned upside down, perhaps permanently.

The public vs the media

One thing that is clear is the British people remain schizophrenic about Brexit. On the one hand, current polling has the public split 52-%-48% in favour of Remain over Leave (largely down to demographic changes in the electorate, rather than people changing their mind). On the other, reframe the question a little and ask whether we should apply to re-join the EU or stay out, then the ‘outers’ have it, also by 52%-48%.

More certain of their own views, of course, are the media. The fifth anniversary of the Referendum has caused much ink to be spilt in what used to be known as Fleet Street reflecting on the result and universally the papers have reached the same conclusion: that whatever position they held previously was absolutely the correct one, only even more so now. According to The Guardian, “Five years on, we finally know what Brexit means: a worse deal for everyone, On trade, finance, migration, food standards and more, the UK suffers fresh ignominy on a daily basis.” Conversely, The Telegraph states, “Whether it’s Britain’s vaccine triumph or Liz Truss’s historic trade deals, Brexit can still be a success.”

Where the parties stand

But how do the political parties see Brexit panning out over the next five years? In a fascinating podcast this week with Anand Menon, Brexit Minister Lord Frost, who led the UK’s negotiating team to leave the EU, is as bullish as you might expect. He relishes the Government’s vision of a “newly” independent, sovereign Britain riding high on the waves of free trade deals struck throughout the world, a global nation pivoting away from Europe and embedded in the CPTPP (Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, which trips nicely off the tongue). But most of all, he foresees within five years “a situation where nobody is questioning Brexit, that it was self-evidently the right thing to do, and the country feels comfortable with it and the world has moved on.”

The one party that did not want the world to move on with Brexit is the Lib Dems, but even here their line has softened over time. Avid supporters of a Second Referendum, they voted against the Brexit Bill in Parliament at the end of last year, but following the election of Ed Davey as leader, the party has said it will not campaign to re-join. Instead it wants to focus on strengthening ties with the EU, including membership of both the Customs Union and the Single Market. Pressure in the party will continue to grow, however, for it to commit to a new referendum on full EU membership as a manifesto pledge at the next Election which could see it back on the agenda before the end of the decade should they hold the balance of power.

Recent by-election results seem to vindicate the positions of both the Conservatives and the Lib Dems with the Tories gaining the fervently Leave seat of Hartlepool from Labour, whilst strongly Remain, Chesham and Amersham switched from the Tories to the Lib Dems. Where does that leave Labour? It lost Hartlepool, a seat it had always held, and lost its deposit in Chesham and Amersham as its vote was squeezed by the other main parties. Siren voices in Labour from the likes of Alastair Campbell and Andrew Adonis are calling on it to take a more robust pro-European stance, if not openly calling for it to re-join, then at least to be highlighting more vividly the economic and political damage that Brexit is causing in all corners of the UK. Meanwhile, Sir Keir appears to be adopting a Basil Fawlty-esque, “Don’t mention Brexit!” position.

Making our minds up

And maybe, just maybe, he might get away with it. Detailed new opinion research from Ipsos Mori has identified seven ‘Brexit’ tribes emerging in 2021 from ‘Liberal Remainers’ and ‘Anxious Remainers’ at one end of the spectrum to ‘Traditionalist Leavers’ and ‘Globalist Leavers’ at the other. At first glance, this appears to show a polarising trend but on closer inspection, the three middle tribes (‘Young, Middle Britain’, ‘Politically Disengaged’ and ‘Entrepreneurial Young’) are the most numerous. They have other concerns, with Brexit seen as very much a second order issue, and critically “see little difference to their daily lives or standard of living so far, but there are touchpoints of concern around the impact on food prices, and on the transport, agriculture and automotive sectors.”

In the 1970s, Zhou Enlai, the former Chinese Premier, in conversation with Henry Kissinger was asked about the impact of the 1789 French Revolution on Chinese society and is reputed to have quipped back, “It’s too early to tell”. It’s only been five years since the Brexit Referendum, but despite all the words, all the opinions, all the commentary in the interim maybe we have still yet to make our minds up about its impact on our own lives too.

Photo Credit: The Guardian

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